Alex Morgan earned her celebration on Tuesday. Morgan scored the go-ahead goal in the 31st minute of the U.S. women’s national team’s semifinal win over England, and she celebrated with a gently ribbing tea-sipping gesture that couldn’t have been more perfect. Was it a nod to a prominent symbol of the American rebellion against the British crown? Or to a more recent, Kermit the Frog–driven symbol of sarcastic response? It had layers, like an immaculate trifle.
But was it “arrogant”? Morgan and Megan Rapinoe and the rest of the U.S. team spent much of the build-up to its semifinal with England answering questions from British media about their supposed arrogance. They still faced pushback for the American celebrations during the rout of Thailand in the team’s World Cup opener three weeks ago, and there was plenty of silliness to go around. England head coach Phil Neville even called out his U.S. counterpart, Jill Ellis, because some of the team’s support staff visited the hotel the U.S. would be staying at ahead of the final, advance booking surely a sign of uncontrollable hubris. (Presumably someone at the well-mannered English Football Association headquarters has to call around the tournament’s host cities every time the team advances in a tournament to find rooms.)
The controversy around the U.S. team has been incredibly dumb, even taking into account soccer’s long history of incredibly dumb controversy. That’s partly because it’s hypocritical, especially as the English are concerned. To take one example: Neville had called England’s star right back Lucy Bronze “the best player in the world” earlier this tournament, in what was presumably just a gentleman stating his own humble opinion.
The bigger problem with the narrative around the U.S. team is that its play in the knockout rounds has been the opposite of arrogant. Yes, Morgan and her teammates celebrate their goals and don’t back down. They act like the best team in the world because they are. But they’ve hardly played like prima donnas. Morgan in particular has absorbed a preposterous amount of punishment. Her face has just happened to be at every defender’s elbow level, her ankles in the paths of their clearing kicks, her shins irresistible targets for opposing studs. It’s clearly had an effect on her play. We’ve rarely seen the galloping runs that earned her the nickname Baby Horse. Even when she does get the ball in open space, there always seems to be a scything poor excuse for a tackle waiting for her.
But she’s played a yeoman’s tournament as an outlet for her teammates’ passing, helping start so many of the Americans’ moves in the final third by posting up and waiting for the pass, even when she knows the hit is coming. France failed to follow her into midfield, and she made it pay with her passing. England did, and she made it pay by earning the fouls that earned the U.S. defense a respite and got center back Millie Bright tossed from the game for her second yellow card.
Morgan’s gritty performances have been mirrored by the teammates behind her. This team has found its groove not by trying to win every game 5–4, as its roster choices seemed designed to do, but by racing out to an early lead then playing just well enough to hold it. Instead of pushing pedal to the metal, Ellis’ team has spent the second half of its last three games, all 2–1 wins, creeping forward with the hazard lights on. The team’s deep defensive block and combative midfield approach doesn’t project an overabundance of confidence. It’s humble in approach, not arrogant, because this is a team doing what it has to do to ensure that it wins.
On paper, this might feel like a poor strategy or a waste of resources. It certainly doesn’t match up to the haughty personas the world has attempted to push onto the players, which might be why the notion has rankled opponents and their fan bases. Instead of getting steamrolled, they find themselves losing in agonizingly close fashion.
In real life, the team just made its third consecutive World Cup final, dispatching the No. 3 and No. 4 teams in the world to get there. Maybe Morgan and the rest of this squad have earned the right to a little arrogance, but that’s none of my business.